8:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Texans -1, Over/Under: 41
A pair of undefeated teams face off tonight at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, as the injury-ravaged New England Patriots host the new-look Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football. Few teams underwent as seismic a makeover on the offensive side of the ball as the Texans (2-0, 1st in AF South), who after crashing and burning in the AFC Wild Card Round (lost 30-0) were in dire need of changes, particularly at Quarterback. During the Offseason, Management rolled up their collective sleeves and got to work, jettisoning incumbent signal-caller Brian Hoyer in favor of prying Brock Osweiler away from the Broncos to the tune of a four-year, $72 million deal ($37 million guaranteed). Changes needed to be made here, folks, as Head Coach Bill O’Brien got just about as much as he could out of Hoyer, who against Kansas City in last year’s Playoffs was a dreadful 15-of-34 passing, tossing FOUR interceptions and losing a fumble. Enter Osweiler, whom Denver did not want to part ways with; the towering 26-year old served as a shot in the arm for the Super Bowl Champions in 2015, admirably replacing an ailing Peyton Manning for eight games, in which he went 5-2 as a starter, completing 61.8% of his attempts for an average of 245.9 yards per game, ten touchdowns and six interceptions, and accumulating a QBR of 48.74 in the process. So how has he acclimated himself to O’Brien’s system, you ask? Well, the jury is still out on the youngster, who through two games has shown why the Texans were so high on him in the first place, yet has also provided glimpses as to why his former employers ultimately wouldn’t fight harder to secure his services long-term. In an opening 23-14 victory over the Bears, Osweiler was solid, connecting on 22-of-35 passes for 231 yards, along with a pair of touchdowns and an interception, but in last week’s narrow 19-12 win against the Chiefs, the fifth-year veteran struggled on 19-of-33 passing for 268 yards, with a score and two picks. So will the real Brock Osweiler please stand up? Another major change made to this unit was the long-gestating departure of Arian Foster, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher (6,519 yards, fifty-four touchdowns from 2009 to 2015). Injuries had slowed the four-time Pro Bowler significantly of late, leading the Texans to cut ties with the 30-year old and pursue different options, eventually concluding with the acquisition to Lamar Miller. The 25-year old Tailback was underutilized in Miami, where for four years he averaged 48.0 yards per game despite racking up a healthy 4.6 yards per carry behind a mediocre Offensive Line. Now that he’s in Houston, he’s figured to receive a STEEP increase in work, going from averaging 10.5 carries a game to 26.5 thus far in 2016. It remains to be seen if his production will in turn increase with the volume of touches, but at four years and $26 million, it appears that O’Brien and Co. have a real weapon at their disposal in the Backfield. A new face that has made waves in the early stages of the campaign is Rookie Wide Receiver Will Fuller, who has been nothing short of explosive opposite Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins. The first-year speedster out of Notre Dame has been a bonafide deep threat, hauling in nine catches on eighteen targets for a total of 211 yards and a touchdown, averaging a whopping 23.4 yards per reception. However, while on one hand a multitude of things have changed, on the other they’ve remained steadfast, as the reigning AFC South Champions are still as staunch as ever on defense. Through two games the Texans rank third in points allowed (13.0) and total defense (274.5), while pacing the league with nine sacks.
Meanwhile, despite weathering the storm of circumstances and remaining atop their division, the Patriots (2-0, 1st in AFC North) may have just found themselves on the wrong side of the perfect storm. Indeed, Bill Belichick and his Staff’s preparation skills will be put to the test tonight as Rookie Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is expected to make the first start of his young career, after the surprising Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a sprained AC Joint in his throwing shoulder during last Sunday’s 31-24 victory over the Dolphins. While New England continues to hold out hope that Garoppolo can tough it out tonight, there is a growing feeling that the Third-Stringer will get the first start of his career. Of course, New England finds themselves in this situation courtesy of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his part in the undying Deflategate controversy, propelling Garoppolo, the team’s Second Round Pick from 2014 to starter’s status during the first quarter of the campaign. Again, to the surprise of many, the third-year veteran out of Eastern Illinois was cool, calm, and collected in his first two starts, evoking the likeness of his predecessor; Garoppolo carved up the Arizona Cardinals on the road, completing 24-of-33 passes for 264 yards and a par of touchdowns in the shocking 23-21 win on Opening Night, and then proceeded to dismantle Miami the following week on 18-of-27 passing, 234 yards and three touchdowns in a little over two quarters of play. Midway through Brady’s suspension and so far so good, but now comes the hard part; Garoppolo may have never started in the league, but had been in the Pats’ system for a little over two years, whereas Brissett only has this past Offseason to lean on. Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels played it safe with the Rookie out of North Carolina State last weekend, protecting a large lead by calling a large volume of run plays. Brissett in turn checked down when needed, with short safe throws as the Dolphins attempted to mount a comeback, completing 6-of-9 passes for ninety-two yards and most importantly NO turnovers. It should be interesting to see if the Coaching Staff tries to push the envelope a bit with their young Quarterback, for going the ultra-conservative route against Houston’s tenacious defense will in all likelihood net negative results. Of course, making this entire meeting even more intriguing is the presence of O’Brien and Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel on the opposite sideline, who each served as key assistants on Belichick’s Staff over his long tenure in Foxboro. O’Brien spent five years coaching a variety of positions on Offense before calling the shots as Offensive Coordinator in 2011, which he parlayed into a Head Coaching job at Penn State. Crennel though, goes even further back; the longtime defensive coach worked with Belichick as pupils of Bill Parcells with the New York Giants from 1983 to 1990 and again with the Patriots from 1995 to 1996, and most famously served as New England’s Defensive Coordinator from 2001 to 2004, a period consisting of three Super Bowl Championships. If there are any opposing coaches in the league that have a better insight as to what is going on in Belichick’s mind than these guys, than we can’t think of them, which should make for a compelling chess match between the former associates.
Predicted Outcome: Texans 16, Patriots 12